Partnering Against Poverty: Examining Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Public Interest Lawyering
By Jenny Chung C’12
A diverse array of panelists ranging from public-interest lawyers to academics to experts across various disciplines convened to discuss poverty issues within both Philadelphia and the broader national context at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s 30th annual Edward V. Sparer Symposium, held March 18 at the Levy Conference Center.
Comprising a full day of presentations and discussions on subjects relevant to the practice of public-interest advocacy, this year’s symposium concluded with remarks from Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder, executive director and president of Project H.O.M.E., a program offering solutions to homelessness and poverty that has garnered national acclaim.
Read about four of the 2011 Sparer Symposium’s six discussions:
- Breaking Down Barriers to Re-entry: A Conversation about Life After Conviction
- Poverty’s Youngest Victims: Ethical Choices for First Responders and Advocates in the Fight for Healthy and Affordable Food
- In Search of Shelter: Local and National Strategies to Alleviating Homelessness
- Sister Mary Scullion: A Call to Action
Breaking Down Barriers to Re-entry: A Conversation about Life After Conviction
Titled “Breaking Down Barriers to Re-entry: A Conversation about Life after Conviction,” the first of the day’s panels aimed to initiate dialogue on the potential of cross-disciplinary collaboration to address challenges faced by individuals with criminal records.
According to moderator Lisa Margulies L’12, the panel focused primarily on two layers of impact—the individual and community—and examined efforts to empower those with criminal records by enabling them to start afresh.
“Only by putting these puzzle pieces together can we maximize impact and create lasting change,” she said.
Prior to the panelists’ discussion, a short video on employment challenges faced by those with convictions, which was created by third-year students enrolled in Professor Regina Austin’s legal advocacy seminar, was shown to illustrate the societal impact of obstructing formerly convicted persons from finding employment.
According to the video, which will be exhibited at the Penn Visual Legal Advocacy Video Festival on April 12, it is now more difficult for formerly convicted individuals to find work than ever due to the ease with which employers can conduct criminal background checks.
Panelist Wayne Jacobs named removing the box inquiring into an applicant’s prior criminal history from employment applications and securing the right to vote for formerly convicted persons among the group’s most significant successes.
Jacobs, himself a formerly incarcerated person who had “spent the last 20 to 25 years going back and forth through the prison system,” co-founded X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, an advocacy organization dedicating to securing the interests of formerly convicted persons attempting to reintegrate into society. He now serves as the initiative’s executive director.
According to Philadelphia Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, two of the “biggest reasons” constituents approach her as an elected official are employment and housing concerns.
Miller, who had worked in collaboration with Jacobs to “ban the box” on job applications asking whether an individual had ever been convicted, characterized the resulting legislation as a means of “combating discrimination” against those with criminal records.
“I’m aware that many times when an employer looks at the application and sees that box checked, they put it aside, never to be seen again,” she said. “There is a whole movement in the U.S. to get these laws passed—Philadelphia wasn’t the first, and we won’t be the last.”
Miller likewise affirmed the necessity of assisting formerly convicted persons with securing employment, citing the statistic that “easily half of [Philadelphia’s] population has someone within their relationships or family that’s a formerly convicted person.”
Thomas J. Innes III, who serves as Director of Prison Services for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, then gave an overview of “Roots to Reentry,” a successful reintegration program through which inmates learn valuable gardening and landscaping skills before being placed with a permanent employer in either industry. According to Innes, of the 11 inmates who completed the program last year, 10 are now employed and doing well on parole.
Magistrate Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania L. Felipe Restrepo likewise recounted his involvement with the Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) program, launched to prevent those who have served long prison sentences for violent crimes from being rearrested. STAR identifies employers friendly to formerly convicted persons and requires participants to meet with magistrate judges every two weeks. After 52 consecutive weeks of satisfactory performance, participants are presented with a motion to reduce their term of supervision by one year. “The transition when folks come home is difficult [and] participants require mentorship,” he said.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of collaboration between city government and local nonprofits, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison maintained that expanding educational opportunity for inmates is key to preventing recidivism.
“Approximately 35 to 40 percent of people in our jails read at a first or second grade level,” he explained, adding that the City has since tripled its ability to provide GEDs to those awaiting trial and is currently providing opportunities for one-fifth of people earning GEDs in prison.
“It’s about making sure everyone has equal opportunity,” he said. “Ninety percent of people in the criminal justice system will come home—the question is, what kind of home are they returning to? They may have been guilty of a misdemeanor but will end up serving a life sentence [in the absence of opportunity.]”